biography - 2 OF 4
LEE’S BIG BREAK
His first big professional role came that same year. After 18 months training with MGM, Clayton told Lee "You're ready." and took a rather surprised Lee Majors to his very first interview at CBS Studio Centre, were the producers of a new TV show - The Big Valley - were looking for 3 good-looking male leads. Lee was to audition of the role of Heath Barkley. The competition was intense, with over 400 actors auditioning for the part. Many of them were well-seasoned veterans of TV work, with a long list of credits behind them.
"They asked for my credits," remembers Lee "and I didn't have any." He confesses he was "very scared and nervous" because of the experience of the competition. "I still find it very nerve-wracking. I knew it would be mentally exhausting, though. I was hardly prepared for the physical grind. But it was what I wanted to do." Lee's determination and ability won the day, and he was cast on the new show as Heath, Barkley, the illegitimate son of the late Tom Barkley, adopted into the Barkley family in the show's Pilot episode - in a role which strangely drew on parallels in Lee's own personal life.
After initially filming the pilot, Lee returned to his job at the park. Even after the series was confirmed as being picked-up by CBS, he kept on working, only handing in his notice two days before regular filming was due to begin. Even then he didn't quit completely. He asked to remain on the inactive employee list, at the park - "just in case". He remained on the inactive list for two years, only removing it when he felt secure in his new profession. He needn't have waited so long....
The show was a huge success. The Big Valley put Lee on the first rungs of the ladder to stardom. Barbara Stanwyck lead the cast as the matriarchal head of the Barkley ranch, keeping family and business going after the death of her husband. The cast was complemented by both experience, and youth, with the additions of Richard Long [Jarrod Barkley], Peter Breck [Nick Barkley], and Linda Evans [Audra Barkley] - with whom Lee studied at MGM - to the cast. The family played a major part as pioneers of ranching and empire building, in California's San Joaquin Valley, circa 1870, and storylines ranged from basic stories of the lives and loves of the Barkley family; to everyday life running a cattle ranch, to various pioneering activities of the era such as the start of the rail-roads and land development; to all-out full-blown cowboys stories of fist-fights and shoot-outs; and even racism; all told through a mix of high drama and soap opera style television. The show aired from 1965-1969, and featured a host of guest stars throughout it's four-year run.
Lee worked hard his early days on the show, one of his main doubts early on was the fact that he had never been on a horse before being signed as "Heath"!. He studied his craft and learned his lines with a diligence which was not lost on the rest of the cast. "I've learned the basic techniques of acting," Lee said at the time, "I've tried to improve my craft. I've watched the directing closely. It's something important to an actor, especially someone new, to pick up all aspects of the business. I go to dubbing sessions, watch the editors work, even turn up at some of the scoring sessions."
Whilst working on his first series, Dave Gershenson, Lee's publicity agent, came across a picture of a young woman who had just come to Hollywood looking for a break in her acting career. That woman was Farrah Fawcett. Gershenson knew his client would like this Texan beauty, and Farrah says "When I first heard from Lee Majors, he was the rudest man I'd ever encountered". This is probably due to the first time Farrah heard from Lee was when he left a message one her answer machine at the all-girl boarding house Farrah was staying at - "Please tell her that Lee Majors will be by at eight o'clock to pick her up." "I'm so sorry I left that message," Lee said. "You know when you work on the set, you can't always get back to a phone, and I just didn't want you to make plans." he told her, almost contritely. Farrah realised that Lee could probably have his pick of any of the girls in Hollywood, at the time, and here he was asking out the new girl in town. It seemed that this handsome actor genuinely wanted to take her out.
That first night out together was filled with stilted conversation and silences, as the two behaved as if clumsy and ill-at-ease teenagers out on a high school date. Farrah spent part of the evening ill in ladies room - something Lee thought at the time was a hint that she hadn't wanted to go on the date in the first place. Despite this, Lee was adamant not to let this wonderful girl slip through his fingers, and the next day sent Farrah a gift a bakers dozen - thirteen - of yellow roses [the state flower of Texas]. Farrah was touched by his thoughtfulness, and from then on the couple were inseparable and were soon seen, and photographed, at various Hollywood social events and night spots over the coming months.
Lee and Farrah eventually married, on the fifth anniversary of their first date: July 28th 1973, in a garden ceremony in the Bel-Air Hotel. The best man was Harvey Yeary, Lee's father, and matron of honor was Diane Walls, Farrah's sister. Also present amongst the one-hundred and fifty-plus guests was 11 year-old Lee Jr., to see his father take his new bride. Theodore Van Runkle, the famed costume designer, created original outfits for the entire bridal party. You only need to look at any photographs from the wedding, to see what a special day it was for Lee and the new Mrs. Majors.
Back to Lee's career...1968 saw Lee his first big movie break alongside Charlton Heston in Will Penny, a western which is credited as portraying a "realistic" view of a cowboy's life in the old west, unlike the usual Hollywood version. Lee had to turn down a role in a John Schlesinger movie, because of a fourteen-week shooting schedule in New York, the movie being Midnight Cowboy. Lee would have played the part which shot another young actor to stardom, the "newcomer" Jon Voight. The end of the Sixties, saw the cancellation of The Big Valley. but Lee was anything but idle. A second movie, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, co-starring with Lee J. Cobb and Roscoe Lee Browne, was followed by another TV series The Men From Shiloh, a revamped The Virginian for it's final year. Lee portrayed Roy Tate, a mysterious ranch hand with a dark past, in another Western series, on the Shiloh Ranch, situated near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, in the 1890's. Two ABC movies resulted in critical acclaim for Lee's acting: Weekend of Terror and The Ballard of Andy Crocker.